24 Jun 2009
Saint Louis: Reliably Excellent
It is quite possible that Opera Theatre of Saint Louis is the leading summer opera destination in the United States.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
In 2015, Bampton Classical Opera’s production of Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio - a UK premiere - received well-deserved accolades: ‘a revelation ... the music is magnificent’ (Seen and Heard International), ‘giddily exciting, propelled by wit, charm and bags of joy’ (The Spectator), ‘lively, inventive ... a joy from start to finish’ (The Oxford Times), ‘They have done Salieri proud’ (The Arts Desk) and ‘an enthusiastic performance of riotously spirited music’ (Opera Britannia) were just some of the superlative compliments festooned by the critical press.
How many singers does it take to make an opera? There are single-role operas - Schönberg’s Erwartung (1924) and Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies (1969) spring immediately to mind - and there are operas that just require a pair of performers, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart i Salieri (1897) or The Telephone by Menotti (1947).
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
It is quite possible that Opera Theatre of Saint Louis is the leading summer opera destination in the United States.
There. I said it. Let the Glimmerglasswegians and the Santa Fesions rail and fuss, but OTSL has really got the whole package together: top quality musical offerings, exciting young singers well on the road to major careers, well-considered theatrical stagings that rival any major house (any), and an extra-musical ambiance that is just about unbeatable. Approaching the house through the lawn area profuse with candle-lit tables, free to any pre-show picnickers who care to use them, and being able to stay after the show to party, applaud, and mingle with the artists in the large Fest tent, well, it is sort of Glyndebourne without the ‘tude.
Add to the mix the fact that this troupe has consistently performed their repertoire in English, in a small house that fosters great immediacy of the theatrical experience, at competitive prices, and, good God, it is 'popular' opera! (Even when the title is not of the bread-and-butter variety). True, the Loretto Hilton lobby is cramped on SRO evenings but. . .there is always a stroll available on that candle-dotted lawn.
My recent visit found this resourceful company in its usual fine artistic form, beginning with as enchanting a production as I imagine possible of Mozart’s Il Re Pastore (The Shepherd King).
Wolfgang’s youthful (he was nineteen) work is set to a much-used libretto by Metastasio, and is of the formulaic opera seria vintage. You know, the kind that can be dead boring no matter how well it is performed. Not so here, thanks to a wholly winning, and dramatically truthful production directed by Chas Rader-Shieber.
For Mr. R-S has imagined it as a sort of Upstairs Downstairs episode with high notes, set in an English country house in a prior century, where a wealthy young woman and her fiance are hosting another well-to-do couple for a visit. After perusing the actual score of Re in this setting, our heroine becomes committed to the group’s enacting the story as the day’s entertainment, assigning roles to not only the other society figures, but also to the bustling servants.
This giddy, play-acting atmosphere yielded impressive results, not only in filling the story with meaningful (and not distracting) stage business, but also allowing for emotional honesty and invention in the many (usually) static set pieces of this genre. It did not hurt that David Zinn’s set was one of the most beautiful I can recall on this St. Louis stage, impeccably dressed. Nor that Robert Perziola’s classy costumes spoke volumes in defining the character relationships, and clarifying plot absurdities, including one drop-dead-gorgeous beaded gown for “Arminta.”
But all this technical brilliance would have been for naught without a top notch cast, and this, too, OTSL delivered in spades. The Gerdine Young Artists development program is a model of its kind, and this investment obviously pays off handsomely as four of the five soloists are former participants.L to R (foreground): Paul Appleby as Agenore, Daniela Mak as Tamiri, Alek Shrader as Alexander, Heidi Stober as Aminta, and Maureen McKay as Elisa in Il Re Pastore
Heidi Stober was radiant as the young affianced woman who is compelled to impersonate the Shepherd King Arminta and enact his plight. Her ample, well-schooled, warm lyric soprano blossomed especially above the staff, and her stage demeanor served up a generous helping of star-quality. Miss Stober was well partnered by her “betrothed,” the tenor Alek Schrader, pressed into duty to play the emperor Alexander. Mr. Schrader has an exceptionally pleasing Mozartean timbre, and his bravura rapid-fire melismatic phrases were heart-racingly delivered.
My favorable impression of Maureen McKay in last summer’s Un Cosa Rara was here confirmed with a securely sung Elisa, a maid who briefly enjoys enacting the longings of a noblewoman. Miss KcKay is capable of regaling us with accurate cascades of fioritura, likewise deploying her crystal clear tone in melting legato phrases. Her spunky stage savvy is equally bewitching. Paul Appleby has fewer fireworks to negotiate in the role of Agenore (advisor to Alexander, in love with Tamiri), but he sang with style and panache. As Tamiri, Daniela Mack complemented her cast mates with her slightly darker rich tone and attention to every musical detail. All five offered fine English diction, coached on this occasion by soprano Erie Mills.
In the pit, conductor Jean-Marie Zeitouni discovered all the youthful spirit and buoyant lyrical possibilities in the score (after a bit of a slack rhythmic start in the first few bars), and there was wonderful solo instrumental work as well throughout the evening. His conscientious partnering of the singers seemed to free them to soar through this youthful-but-challenging work.
The baton was successfully passed the very next night to another conductor whose stock is rising, Michael Christie, who helmed a musically rich reading of The Ghosts of Versailles, by John Corigliano, libretto by William M. Hoffman. After a sensational debut at the Metropolitan Opera in the early 90’s which was followed by several other revivals in major houses, Ghosts languished, largely (it is believed) owing to the lavish original designs, and massive instrumental and vocal forces required.
At St. Louis, the production team and composer have sought to down-size the piece to make it more accessible to smaller opera companies. As evidenced here, they have been largely successful in their attempt. Corigiliano is a brilliant orchestrator, and his original score took full advantage of the huge pit and full band of the Met. Here, Ghosts was re-scored in a new performing edition commissioned by OTSL and executed by John David Earnest. It was quite a successful trade-off, and much variety and color remained, many times (favorably) suggesting the smaller scores of Benjamin Britten. While the instrumental presence was almost always ample, there were a few climactic moments that seemed a mite under-powered, not least of which was the very final sting of Act One. These minor quibbles aside, this was a very fine re-working of the piece, that retained its musical integrity.Kevin J. Glavin as Louis XVI and Maria Kanyova as Marie Antoinette with (at rear l. to r.) Dorothy Byrne as Susanna and Hanan Alattar as Rosina in The Ghosts of Versaille
We were equally fortunate with the physical production, directed by James Robinson, with sets by Allen Moyer, costumes by James Schuette, and most important, highly evocative video projections by Wendall K. Harrington. As we entered the auditorium, we discovered the theatre at Versailles, on stage, being refurbished by a contemporary restoration crew in blue jump suits. That image segued into the arrival of the ghosts, attired in lavish period costumes, and superb wigs/make-up by Tom Watson (a company treasure, he). The first notes of the score sounded, sans the usual conductor’s entrance, and the lighting melded into disorienting video work that transported us to the deserted stage of long ago, “beyond time” as the program noted. It should be said that Paul Palazzo provided the uncommonly fine lighting designs for both evening’s performances.
One element of the work that resisted diminution was the large cast demand. It took a village to get this work up, and there was great depth in the entire cast largely thanks (again) to the company’s young artists, who also formed the chorus under Sandra Horst’s direction. I did find that the dancers contributed less to the overall dramatic experience than they might have, and elimination of the dance corps might be a possible further cut-back. The stage got crowded at times, although Mr. Robinson not only managed the traffic well, but focused the important dramatic moments and developed believable characters and strong relationships.
Without creating a laundry list, it is hard to single out all who were excellent in this large ensemble cast. Certainly expectations were high for Maria Kanyova (another former apprentice) as Marie Antoinette, and she did not disappoint. Ms. Kanyova has a responsive soprano, with a hint of metal that stands her in good stead in dramatic segments, but she can also scale her voice down to float effective pianissimi that veritably float above the staff. She was a worthy successor to the great Teresa Stratas who created the role. Christopher Feigum was suitably winning as Figaro, although in his first big aria all the acting seemed to be external. The internal spark of creation crept in sometime during his (quite funny) Act One finale drag moments as the harem girl and he remained fully engaged for the rest of night. His pliant, smooth baritone gave considerable pleasure and he is a talent to watch.
Mr. Corigliano apparently loves his baritones and he created a fine complementary foil in Beaumarchais, well-taken on this occasion by James Weston. As should be, Mr. Weston has a little more maturity of tone and the bronze patina of his upper register contributed to a very effective contrast. His love for the doomed heroine was wonderfully embodied and his alternately witty and sensitive delivery enabled a well-rounded character to emerge.
As stage characters in the concurrent Figaro comedy, a jewel of an ensemble worked tightly together in a slightly heightened play-acting style. Samuel Read Levine (Leon), Paula Murrihy (Cherubino), Sean Panikkar (Almaviva) were all terrific, with young artist Jeanette Vechhione capturing the most applause for her technically secure stratospheric singing as Florestine. Hanan Alattar and Dorothy Byrne were exquisite in their limpid lyrical outpouring of the extended Act Two duet for Rosina and Susanna, a musical high point.
The real-time bad guys were equally well-served by Lee Gregory, a vocally assured and physically active (and fearless) Wilhelm, and by stentorian, tireless tenor (and fine character actor) Matthew DiBattista as Begearss. Elizabeth Batton did everything possible to amuse us in her star turn as Samira. Originally created for the particular gifts of Marilyn Horne, Ms. Batton made it her own with plummy tone, a well-modulated chest voice, and sound technique in the middle and (ringing) upper reaches. Quite a comedian, she wisely eschewed the baritonal power of Ms. Horne for an equally successful and personalized performance.
If I had to mention only three more performers, I would include the characterful Louis XVI from Kevin J. Glavin, the firm-voiced Marquis of Kevin Park, and the delightful Woman with Hat sung by Erin Holland.
Upon re-visiting The Ghosts of Versailles I still found it a particularly well-calculated mix of old and new styles, in turn challenging and comfortable, telling a dramatically satisfying and captivating story of fate and acceptance. If I still feel that the arias go on a bit longer than needed to make their musical or dramatic point, they never become uninteresting, especially in the hands of such a capable roster of performers.
This production will go on to fall’s Wexford Festival, and it alone would make it worth the trip to Ireland. It deserves many more performances.